Thomas Sackville 1536-1608
English poet and playwright.
Sackville is famous for two poems and a play, nearly all that remains of a literary career cut short by his decision to devote his energies to government service. However small Sackville's artistic output may be, scholars recognize him to be a key figure in literary history, especially for the play he wrote with Thomas Norton, Gorboduc (1661). Although critics disagree about the play's political message and final merit, few contest its long list of literary firsts: the first neoclassical English tragedy, the earliest surviving English drama written in blank verse, the first English play to precede each of its five acts with dumb shows, and the first play that was the subject of pronounced literary criticism in England. The two poems by Sackville that were included in William Baldwin's 1563 edition of A Mirror for Magistrates, “Induction” and “The Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham,” are commonly recognized as the best in the collection. “Induction” especially has continued to garner critical attention, both for its combination of classical and medieval influences and for its motif of winter landscapes that inspired countless imitations, most notably by Edmund Spenser in the opening eclogue of his The Shepheardes Calender.
Sackville was born in Buckhurst, Sussex, into an aristocratic family that had gained distinction through generations of service to British royalty. Sackville's father was the cousin of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. At age fifteen, Sackville probably began his academic career at Oxford University. In 1555, he became a member of the Inner Temple, an exclusive law school where he prepared for a parliamentary career and where he met fellow student Thomas Norton. In 1558, Sackville was elected to Parliament, beginning what would become a life-long career in government. Late in 1561, the play he authored with Norton, Gorboduc, was staged for the first time. From 1563 to 1567, Sackville toured Italy and France. In 1567, he was knighted Lord Buckhurst and was elevated to the House of Lords. For the rest of his career, he held a variety of prominent government posts, serving as a diplomat to France, the Low Countries, and Spain, and as the Lord High Treasurer who in 1601 ordered the execution of the Earl of Essex for treason. Sackville's dedication to the Crown was repeatedly rewarded. In 1589, he was made a Knight of the Garter; in 1591, he was named chancellor of Oxford University; and in 1605, King James I bestowed on him the title Earl of Dorset. In 1608, Sackville died while engaged in his official duties at the Council Table.
The date of composition of Sackville's extant poetry remains a matter of conjecture. His two most famous poems, “Induction” and “The Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham,” were probably written between 1554 and 1557, although they were not published until 1563, when William Baldwin, editor of A Mirror for Magistrates, made revisions to his 1559 edition, which had been censored for drawing attention to the misdeeds of royal figures from the recent past. Sackville's “Induction” was designed to establish the tone for A Mirror for Magistrates as an anthology of tragic poems intended to influence contemporary royalty and government officials to act properly by showing from historical example how vice was punished, if not in this life then in the afterlife. Sackville's “Induction,” written in rhyme-royal pentameter, begins with the poet musing in a bleak winter landscape. He meets Sorrow, who takes him to the underworld to encounter Henry, the Duke of Buckingham. Seventy-six stanzas in length, “Induction” then moves directly into “The Complaint of Henry,” which recounts the tragic fall of Henry, who was guilty of trying to overthrow his royal master, Richard III. Sackville's and Norton's tragedy, Gorboduc, was first staged for the Inner Temple in December 1561; the following month it was performed for Queen Elizabeth I. Written in blank verse and deeply influenced by both the classical tragedies of Seneca and medieval English morality plays, Gorboduc tells the story of two princes, Ferrex and Porrex, who are driven to civil war after their father, King Gorboduc, divides his kingdom between them. Although the play did not enjoy a long stage life, it has remained the subject of intense critical analysis for its political theme and the fact that it was the earliest five-act tragedy written in English.
Critics are unanimous in their praise of Sackville's “Induction” and “Complaint of Henry” as the best poetry in Baldwin's A Mirror for Magistrates. They also agree that Sackville's “Induction” was responsible for establishing winter landscapes as a motif expressing mutability, a device that would be imitated and expanded upon by numerous English poets. More general assessments of Sackville's two poems have ranged considerably, however. Edmund Spenser, who modeled his “January” eclogue on the opening stanzas of Sackville's “Induction,” lauded Sackville's poem as “golden verses.” Alexander Pope argued that Sackville's two poems represented the greatest English poetry written between the times of Chaucer and Spenser, a sentiment repeated by many critics. Nevertheless, at least one prominent scholar, Jacobus Swart, has challenged this evaluation, arguing that Sackville's poetic reputation is greatly overrated and that his two famous poems lack the sustained excellence or originality with which they are commonly credited. A number of critics have focused on Sackville's sparing use of metaphor, his allusions to classical and medieval sources, and his depiction of Henry as a sympathetic figure, a device that influenced the characterization of tragic protagonists in later English drama. Sackville's only other known surviving poetry are a sonnet composed in 1561 for Thomas Hoby's translation of Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier and a recently discovered poem, “Sacvyle's Olde Age.” The latter work suggests that Sackville wrote additional poetry before denouncing it as youthful folly.
Critical analysis of Gorboduc has tended to focus less on the play's literary merit than on issues relating to its composition, principle influences, and underlying theme. Scholars concerned with the compositional history of Gorboduc have attempted to determine which of the five acts Sackville wrote and which should be attributed to Norton. Discussions about the play's influences have divided critics between those who stress the influence of Seneca and those who find that English dramatic traditions were at least as important in shaping the work. Finally, while the majority of critics agree that Gorboduc should be read as a message to the unmarried Queen Elizabeth urging her to establish a line of succession for the political stability of the country, there remain many alternate explanations that challenge this interpretation. Praise for Gorboduc is not altogether lacking. Alexander Pope held it in high regard, and Sir Philip Sidney lauded its language. Perhaps most importantly, few would disagree that the play exercised considerable influence on the portrayal of tragic figures on the English stage.
Gorboduc [Ferrex and Porrex with Thomas Norton] (play) 1561
“Sonnet” (poetry) 1561
“Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham” (poetry) 1563
“Induction” (poetry) 1563
“Sacvyle's Olde Age” (poetry) 1989
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SOURCE: Pyle, Fitzroy. “Thomas Sackville and A Mirror for Magistrates.” Review of English Studies 14 (July 1938): 315-21.
[In the following essay, Pyle attempts to date the composition of “Induction” and “Complaint” and goes on to discuss William Baldwin's role in editing the two poems included in The Mirror for Magistrates.]
Thomas Sackville is one of the great might-have-beens of literature. He appears to have written nothing after the age of twenty-four and comparatively little before that; yet not alone was he the outstanding poet of the age in which he was writing, but it is generally agreed that “his contributions to the Mirror for Magistrates contain the best poetry written in the English language between Chaucer and Spenser.” These poems, the “Induction” and the “Complaint of the Duke of Buckingham,” survive in two forms—as separate but continuous pieces in the 1563 and subsequent editions of A Mirror for Magistrates, as a single poem entitled “The Complaint of Henry Duke of Buckingham” in the autograph manuscript in St. John's College, Cambridge, which possesses, after the word finis, an incomplete draft epilogue not printed in the Mirror. This copy was discovered and reported some years ago by Miss Marguerite Hearsey, and her promised edition of the manuscript has recently appeared. It provides material for an inquiry which should...
(The entire section is 2578 words.)
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SOURCE: Baker, Howard. “Gorboduc: Some Fundamental Problems in the Early Dramatic Tradition.” In Induction to Tragedy: A Study in a Development of Form in Gorbudoc, The Spanish Tragedy, and Titus Andronicus, pp. 9-47. New York: Russell & Russell, 1939.
[In the following excerpt, Baker argues that the ongoing critical debate about the themes and philosophy of Gorboduc can best be resolved by considering the lives and literary concerns of the play's two authors, Sackville and Thomas Norton.]
Gorboduc has been more than usually subject to the vicissitudes of opinion. Composed in 1561 by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton and played as “furniture of part of the grand Christmasse in the Inner Temple,”1 it was acted at Queen Elizabeth's invitation, a month later before her in Whitehall Palace. While its style and morality inspired the encomiums of Sir Philip Sidney, its failure to abide rigidly by Aristotle's precepts of regularity drew his condemnation.2 To Edward Alde it was apparently a political piece, for Alde reprinted it in 1590 as an appendix to Lydgate's Serpent of Division, a prose work on the evils of the civil wars in the time of Julius Caesar. During the following century it belonged to oblivion. Then Thomas Rymer, using it as a club to inflict his militant pedantry, described it inaccurately and commended it...
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SOURCE: Swart, Jacobus. “Sackville's Achievement.” In Thomas Sackville: A Study in Sixteenth-Century Poetry, pp. 121-35. Groningen, Batavia: J. B. Wolters' Uitgeversmaatschappij, 1949.
[In the following essay, Swart argues that Sackville's small body of poetry and one play were not as important or original as literary historians have argued.]
We have examined Sackville's life and character, and found him a man whom it would have been a privilege to know. Determined, a bit of an autocrat perhaps, but a diplomat full of high purpose, with a wide range of interests and most capable withal. As a young man, quite incidentally, this great statesman produced two pieces of literature. … We have tried to show that between these two works there is a distance of perhaps six or seven years, and we know that the second of them must, in Sackville's eyes, have marked an advance. There seems to be every reason to write a few pages of glowing tribute and then sit back satisfied that Sackville has at last been done justice to.
Alas, to do justice is too often a synonym for a well-meant pat on the back that has little to do with a considered appreciation of real merit. We have found that Sackville was at his best when following Virgil, and but for some parts of Gorboduc there is in his work little original poetic detail. His style, however excellent, is developed in accordance with current fashion,...
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SOURCE: Davie, Donald. “Sixteenth-Century Poetry and the Common Reader: The Case of Thomas Sackville.” Criticism 4 (April 1954): 117-27.
[In the following essay, Davie argues that although it may be difficult for the modern reader to appreciate Sackville's poetry, if one considers Elizabethan tastes the poet deserves the critical praise he received.]
In fact of course he is a very uncommon reader indeed. He may even be extinct, and in a strict sense perhaps he never existed. But if he does not exist it is necessary to invent him; or if he has become extinct it is essential to pretend that he has not. For without him criticism must die. He is the reader that every critic addresses; and the best of critics fall short of the common reader in their reading. For the common reader is the reader without bias, the critic without an axe to grind, the reader open to persuasion who may give the work its one and only ‘right reading’. This reader then is not common in the sense that he is to be found with ease; indeed, it is not strictly speaking the reader that is common, but his reading. The good critic respects him because he reads the body of work with which the critic is for the moment concerned, in common with many other comparable bodies of writing. The common reader is he who reads (say) sixteenth-century English poetry in common with modern American fiction, ancient Greek drama, and so on. In fact he...
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SOURCE: Clemen, Wolfgang. “Gorboduc.” In English Tragedy Before Shakespeare: The Development of Dramatic Speech, translated by T. S. Dorsch, pp. 56-74. London: Methuen & Co., 1961.
[In the following essay, originally published in German in 1955, Clemen examines the rhetorical style and thematic purpose of Gorboduc.]
The history of rhetorical tragedy in England opens with Gorboduc. In this play the genre Drama has assumed a very strange garb; it is so stiff in movement and so full of elaborate set speeches that it is difficult for us nowadays to appreciate it as drama at all. Yet Gorboduc exerted an unusually powerful influence on English drama. It must have been accepted as a model not only by the literary theorists, but even by the playwrights. We must not, therefore, in trying to set it into historical perspective, start from any preconceived notion of Drama per se, or judge it according to any later conception of what a play should be. In spite of all dramatic and poetic theory, there is no such thing as Drama, in the abstract, to be set up as a norm of value against which to measure the dramatic production of different ages. In the five decades alone between 1550 and 1600 we find half a dozen dramatic forms in England, each possessing its own laws and characteristics.1
Speech is the life-blood of Gorboduc, the almost...
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SOURCE: Howarth, R. G. “Thomas Sackville and A Mirror for Magistrates.” English Studies in Africa 6, no. 1 (March 1963): 77-99.
[In the following essay, Howarth provides an account of Sackville's life and then considers his poetic contributions to A Mirror for Magistrates, which the critic argues were the most influential in the entire collection.]
Thomas Sackville was born in 1536, at Buckhurst, Sussex. His father was Sir Richard Sackville, a cousin of Anne Boleyn, described by Roger Ascham as “a lover of learning and all learned men; wise in all doings; courteous to all persons, showing spite to none, doing good to many.” He held important offices under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I successively—a sort of Vicar of Bray, who earned the sobriquet of “Fillsack” (that is, self-enricher). At 15 or 16 Thomas is said to have entered Hart Hall, Oxford, where he became known as a poet, writing in both English and Latin. In 1560 Jasper Heywood, his contemporary, refers to his
sonnets sweetly sauc'd and featly fined.(1)
Unless he is among the “uncertain authors” in Tottel's Miscellany, 1557, only one of his sonnets remains, that prefixed to Sir Thomas Hoby's translation of Count Baldassare Castiglione's Courtier, 1561, a book which must have influenced his life and conduct. From this poem it may be...
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SOURCE: Bohlmeyer, Jeannine. “Mythology in Sackville's ‘Induction’ and ‘Complaint.’” Costerus 2 (1972): 9-23.
[In the following essay, Bohlmeyer argues that although Sackville borrowed heavily from classical and medieval sources to fashion his “Induction” and “Complaint,” the poems were truly original and the greatest expressions of tragedy found in A Mirror for Magistrates.]
Classical mythology has been and occasionally still is a fertile field in which English literature flowers easily. Some of the flowers are decorative and showy and fast-fading; some are sturdy hybrids grafting the ancient tradition and a later creative imagination into a plant of perennial beauty. During the English Renaissance, authors and the reading public both had been educated in the classics, especially the Latin classics, and translations, allusions, recreations of myths were the common stock of the educated. One of the favorite books was A Mirror for Magistrates, such a popular success that it went through eight editions in about thirty years and acquired a host of notable imitators among the poets and the writers of chronicle plays.1 Later critical opinion has tended to regard most of the tragedies in the Mirror as dreary bits of Renaissance moralizing of inferior verse quality. The notable exception to this judgment is the portion of the Mirror, “The Induction” and...
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SOURCE: Bradford, Alan T. “Mirrors of Mutability: Winter Landscapes in Tudor Poetry.” English Literary Renaissance 4 (winter 1974): 3-39.
[In the following excerpt, Bradford argues that Sackville's “Induction” was the most influential Tudor poem to use images of winter landscapes to express the human condition.]
Descriptions of winter are common in sixteenth-century English poetry, and they almost always function as metaphorical mirrors of the speaker's state of mind; at the same time, the winter landscape is invariably emblematic of that aspect of the human condition that so preoccupied the Renaissance imagination: mutability. Such descriptions apply the figure chronographia, the “counterfeit time,” which normally involves a correlation between the season of the year (or the time of day) and the theme and mood of the poem; this simple precept was thus set down by Robert Henryson:
Ane doolie sessoun to ane cairfull dyte Suld correspond and be equivalent.(1)
Whereas a description of spring might serve as prelude to a melancholy lover's complaint, this contrast is not likely to be exploited in reverse: an Elizabethan poem that evokes a winter setting will be elegiac in mood. The laws of rhetoric would appear to be inflexible on this point, and in actual practice the device is susceptible of monotony. Yet precisely because of the limits thus imposed on the...
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SOURCE: Berlin, Normand. “Thomas Sackville and Elizabethan Tragedy.” In Thomas Sackville, pp. 120-27. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.
[In the following excerpt, Berlin contends that Sackville should be remembered for more than his authorship of the first English tragedy, arguing that his blank verse and poetic characterizations of tragic figures were instrumental in the subsequent tragedies of more prominent playwrights, including William Shakespeare.]
Thomas Sackville is the victim of “the most perfect conspiracy of approval,” to use T. S. Eliot's phrase in his notorious essay about Ben Jonson. Praised for having written the best poem between Chaucer and Spenser, lauded for having presented a play to which the word “first” is always attached, Sackville is read only by historians, antiquarians, and students studying for doctoral comprehensives. My preceding chapters on the “Induction,” the “Complaint,” and Gorboduc have attempted to demonstrate that these works have intrinsic merit and that Thomas Sackville is a fine literary artist as well as a name in literary histories.
Although we must return inevitably to Sackville's well-preserved niche in the history of English literature, the quick enumeration of “firsts” and the fleeting comments of praise do not adequately suggest Sackville's rich contribution to the development of Elizabethan tragedy. To know...
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SOURCE: Zim, Rivkah. “Dialogue and Discretion: Thomas Sackville, Catherine de Medici and the Anjou Marriage Proposal 1571.” Historical Journal 40, no. 2 (June 1997): 287-310.
[In the following essay, Zim argues that Sackville's official correspondence to Queen Elizabeth and Thomas Heneage, composed while he was a diplomat in France, can be read as filled with carefully crafted rhetoric meant to influence decisions on royal succession and thus may be regarded as political literature in much the way that Gorboduc has been.]
For most of his distinguished career as a statesman Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst (later first earl of Dorset) was also known as a poet and dramatist. He is now best known as the co-author of Gorboduc, the first blank-verse tragedy in English, which was performed at the Inner Temple's Christmas festivities of 1561 and, two weeks later, before the queen at Whitehall.1 About the same time Sackville wrote a dedicatory sonnet in praise of Thomas Hoby's translation of Castiglione's Book of the courtier, which was printed with the first edition in 1561. All Sackville's surviving poetry belongs to a period before the early 1570s; later, it seems, he was preoccupied with business and public affairs.2 However, he continued to write, and all his life his literary interests and abilities continued to serve his political career in important ways....
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SOURCE: Walker, Greg. “Strategies of Courtship: The Marital Politics of Gorboduc.” In The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama, pp. 196-21. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Walker argues that the earliest stage performances of Gorboduc before royal audiences show that, despite the play's more universal appeal, its foremost intention was to influence Queen Elizabeth to marry Robert Dudley.]
While Queen Mary readily conformed to male expectations, taking a husband and tempering her sovereignty in the political arena with wifely subservience in the domestic sphere, Elizabeth I resolutely did not. Her refusal to marry superseded all other issues to become the most pressing political problem of the first three decades of her reign.1 Ministers, courtiers, and noblemen, foreign diplomats and their princely masters, all sought consistently to tempt, cajole, or frighten her into accepting a husband or naming an heir. They did so with formal petitions from Parliament, through elaborate courtships—conducted either in person or through proxies—through the carefully coded allegories of poets, and, as what follows will make clear, through plays.
The first of the plays deliberately to intervene in this ongoing debate about the queen's marriage plans and the future of the realm is the subject of this chapter. It...
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SOURCE: Vanhoutte, Jacqueline. “Community, Authority and the Motherland in Sackville and Norton's Gorboduc.” Studies in English Literature 40, no. 2 (spring 2000): 227-39.
[In the following essay, Vanhoutte focuses on themes of community, nationhood, and royal maternal responsibility that Sackville and Norton developed in Gorboduc to try to convince Queen Elizabeth that England's political stability required her to marry.]
Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton's Gorboduc (1561-62) has elicited critical interest mainly because it is the first blank-verse tragedy in English and because it engages the politically delicate matter of the Elizabethan succession. As scholars of the play have noted, Gorboduc urges Elizabeth I to accept parliamentary advice by marrying, providing an heir, and ensuring the stability of the country.1 I shall argue that the play renders this advice emotionally legitimate by advancing the claims of what it calls the “mother land” (V.ii.179).2 In the process, Gorboduc questions dynastic notions of community: the play addresses the tendency of monarchies to promote “unnatural” behavior, it complicates the commonplace identification of the body politic with the monarch, and it circumscribes royal sovereignty by assigning authority to the “native land” (V.ii.170). Furthermore, in giving that “native land” a...
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SOURCE: Pincombe, Mike. “Sackville Tragicus: A Case of Poetic Identity.” In Sixteenth-Century Identities, edited by A. J. Piesse, pp. 112-32. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Pincombe analyzes “Complaint” in order to show that Sackville's goal was to become a serious writer of tragedy.]
To the general reader, Thomas Sackville presents a very curious case of poetic identity. By that I mean that he is is more or less identical with Thomas Norton, with whom he wrote the ‘first English tragedy’: Gorboduc (first printed 1565). Few casual readers of this play (if there are any) can tell the two poets apart; and many trained literary scholars, I suspect, would be hard pressed to identify those parts of the play written by Sackville and those by Norton (even after they had been told which were which). Matters are made worse by the unenviable reputation Gorboduc has won for itself as the rude forefather of the superior tragedy of Marlowe, Shakespeare and the rest. A typical response to Gorboduc and other tragedies from the 1560s is to dismiss them as ‘inept and bumbling’;1 and this is a view shared by countless readers—or, more likely, non-readers—of this drama. ‘Sackville and Norton’, as Macaulay's schoolboy would know if he were to attend an ordinary university English course, are officially quite...
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Zim, Rivkah, and M. B. Parkes. “‘Sacvyles Olde Age’: A Newly Discovered Poem by Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, Earl of Dorset (c. 1536-1608).” Review of English Studies 40, no. 157 (February 1989): 1-25.
Discusses Sackville's poetic artistry in a recently discovered poem, “Sacvyle's Olde Age.”
Additional coverage of Sackville’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 62 and 132; Discovering Authors Modules—Dramatists Module; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to English Literature Ed. 2.
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